CODENAME IVAN

© 2013 Cosmo
cosmonaut@hush.com

This Story is works of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

These stories are copyrighted by Cosmo, all rights reserved. Distribution, including but not limited to: posting on internet sites, newsgroups, or message boards, or in book form (either as a whole or part of a compilation), or on CD, DVD or any other electronic media, is expressly prohibited without the author's written consent.


Chapter 11: Crystal Lake - II

The resort was reasonably quiet. Considering the glorious weather, you would have expected it to be buzzing with activity, perhaps overrun by groups of tourists and sun-seekers enjoying the lake. But it wasn't. The diner was almost empty when we arrived, so we had free run on the choice of where to sit. The matriarchal waitress was mature and experienced, with that easygoing, down to earth demeanor of someone who was an old hand at what she was doing. She had a mischievous glint in her eyes and gave Yura and Vladik a very friendly, benevolent smile when we walked in. Something told me she had already done the motherhood thing and probably had grownup children of her own. She seated us in a booth by the window. It was a good table. Looking out, beyond the parking lot, you could see the gentle grassy slope that led down towards the edge of the lake. There was a small jetty with slips for a few small boats, with one small fishing boat bobbing up and down on its mooring. The waitress handed round the menus and reached for a pencil that she had stuck behind her ear. She pulled out an order pad from the narrow little apron that was hung around her waist. The laminated menu was greasy and flyblown, one of those order cards that had washed-out pictures of everything on offer. The boys cleverly reverted to that well-known universal language: pointing. They simply looked at the menu and jabbed their fingers at the image of what they wanted. They also seemed to be more or less in agreement with each other. They chose pancakes and chocolate milkshakes. Anton and I just settled for coffee.

Yura and Vladik were still excitable, and still somewhat hyper from our walk. It had been a struggle to encourage them to leave behind the idyll of the cove and walk on to the resort. I thought it was quaint that they needed persuading to get back into their clothes after experiencing the freedom of an afternoon's skinny-dipping. They still had the buzz of excitement from the wondrous day they had had, and it was heartening to see them so bright, still alert and talkative, but somewhat relaxed. I had arranged for us to stay at the resort for one night and head back to our encampment in the morning. It was a little treat for the boys and would avoid having to complete our circumnavigation of the lake all in one day. It was now early evening and, although we could still get back before it got dark, it would be too much walking even for these energetic little boys.

As we waited for our order to arrive, I looked around the almost deserted diner and saw how rundown it looked. The place was slightly yellowed and shopworn, though still homely and welcoming. The only other people in there were an elderly couple at one end, by the door, and two young guys sat on fixed stools at the L-shaped counter. The elderly couple were sitting opposite each other across the booth cupping mugs of coffee. The distinguished looking husband had a rather large SLR camera slung about his neck, with a lens so long it looked more like a telescope. Obviously a serious photographer. Possibly even a birdwatcher. To those who were in the know, Crystal Lake was famous for its wildlife. The two young guys sitting at the counter were dressed in jeans and checked shirts and had baseball caps crammed on their heads. They were perhaps a little older than Anton, probably in their early twenties, and seemed to be looking over at us with more than a passing curiosity. They were busily tucking into steaks and drinking bottled beer. The only two vehicles in the parking lot were an Oldsmobile and a Toyota pickup. I guessed the pickup was theirs. It had chainsaws and other tools slung in the back. They were probably backwoodsmen.

I probably wouldn't have noticed the two young guys at the counter if they didn't keep looking over at us. I saw one of them, the bigger of the two, nudge the other with his elbow and nod in our direction. The other looked up and glanced over at us. There seemed to be this series of odd stares being exchanged between them, and they were passing quick comments back and forth as they chewed on their steaks. Vladik was sitting next to me, and they seemed to be looking over at him. Yura, who was sitting next to Anton, had his back to them, so they probably couldn't see him. But it was clear to me that they certainly knew who Vladik was. We had the media to thank for that. Even here, in such a remote place, the internet and satellite TV had ensured that these little boys' faces would be instantly recognized. The two young guys had an air of menace about them. My police officer's instinct told me that their intentions were not strictly honorable, and their gawping made me feel very uncomfortable. I was relieved when they had finished their steaks, downed the last of their beer, and got up to leave. Having paid their check, they grabbed their denim jackets from the rack and slipped outside. I watched them through the window, and sure enough, they climbed into the Toyota pickup and drove away. I was glad that Vladik had been too preoccupied joshing and joking with Yura to have noticed the threatening stares that those two guys had transmitted in his direction. Anton and Yura were of course completely unaware.

When we had all finished, the waitress came back to clear our table and brought over two little bowls with three scoops of ice cream in each. She set them down in front of Yura and Vladik.

"For your beautiful boys," she said, with a kindly tone, "on the house."

Yura and Vladik looked like it was Christmas - flattered and overjoyed at their luck. I thanked the waitress and told her the gesture was appreciated. They loved the ice cream, devouring every last spoonful and almost licking the bowls clean. When we got up to go, the waitress winked at them.

"You look after those boys now, y' hear?" she said to me as we left.

I didn't know whether the complimentary ice cream was because she knew who these boys were. Perhaps she recognized them, but chose to be discreet about it, intending the ice cream as a gesture of her solidarity and support for them. But I couldn't be sure. She could just as well have been simply a kindly waitress with a soft spot for pretty little boys who maybe reminded her of her own kids. Who knows?

We rented one of the little cottages. It was one of the many split log cabins that were interspersed throughout the wooded area of the resort. The cottages were all sufficiently far apart to give the impression of space and isolation. Ours was fairly close to the edge of the lake, so that if you looked out, the water was barely a hundred feet away. The door of the cottage opened directly into a living area which had a natural wood picnic table, varnished to a high gloss, and the center of the room had a large area rug, a sofa and two upholstered armchairs all facing a large stone fireplace. Just next to the fireplace was a small bookcase stacked with old paperbacks and a few board games. The far wall had two doors leading to the two bedrooms, and it had a small galley kitchen just to one side. It was very cozy. As soon as we entered, the boys gasped in awe and ran in, yammering excitedly.

I took off my backpack and took Anton's backpack from him. As usual, he seemed to know exactly what needed doing. He went straight to the fireplace and knelt down. I knew he would figure out what to do. I watched as he piled sticks around a wad of paper and leaned several logs against one another over the top. Whilst he was busy building a fire, I unpacked our stuff.

What followed was a very convivial evening. There was no TV at the cottage, so we were resigned to creating our own entertainment. Anton found a pack of cards on the bookshelf and once again succeeded in mesmerizing the boys with his own distinctive brand of homespun entertainment. They sat on the rug in front of the roaring fire, even though the sofa and armchairs were perfectly comfortable. But I guessed they just wanted to be closer to each other. I was in the little galley kitchen microwaving popcorn and I watched Anton from across the room.

Anton spread the cards in a fan and asked Vladik to pick whichever card he wanted. Anton told him to look at it but not show him. Vladik thought about it for a while and eventually picked one. He looked at it and, when he was sure he had memorized it, slipped it back into the pack. Anton shuffled the cards a few times, juggling them back and forth between his hands and eventually started laying them out one by one on the rug. The boys watched, their eyes wide with wonder and anticipation, until eventually Anton picked another card from the pack and this time did not lay it on the rug - he turned it around and held it up to Vladik for him to see. It was his card! Both Vladik's and Yura's mouths opened in an O shape, and they gasped audibly, clearly impressed by Anton's trick. Vladik started clamoring that he wanted to learn how to do it. So Anton gave him the cards and started to explain how it worked, demonstrating step by step as he went. I admired his patience. Vladik listened intently and practiced as they went along. Then Vladik performed the trick on Yura. After a couple of failed attempts, he seemed almost shocked when he pulled it off, this time having successfully identified Yura's card. They all looked at each other with widened eyes and their mouths open in an even bigger O than before. The boys were clearly impressed by Anton's clever sleight-of-hand card tricks. So was I. Was there no end to this boy's talents?

As they sat there absorbed with the cards, I brought in a big bowl of popcorn and they all pitched in, taking big handfuls of the stuff, and filling their little mouths absently as they played. Then I brought in a big bottle of what looked like champagne and some fluted glasses on a tray. They watched as I set it down on the little picnic table. I opened the sealed cap with a loud, hollow pop and they gave a little cheer as the fizzy stuff foamed out of the top. I poured four glasses of the effervescent amber liquid and came to sit down on the floor with them, setting the tray down in the middle of us.

"What's this?" asked Anton.

"Sparkling grape juice," I said, and I leaned over and whispered, "Don't worry, it's totally non-alcoholic."

Anton smiled. He held up the glass and looked at it against the light.

"Looks like the real thing," he said.

I handed the glasses round and proposed a toast.

"To a successful expedition," I announced, holding up my glass.

We all drank to that, and as we did so, I noticed Vladik glancing strategically at me. It wasn't a look of resentment this time. More a look of puzzled acceptance. He didn't say anything, but I thought I might have even spotted a hint of gratitude in his pretty emerald eyes. Whatever it was, I detected no hostility in his stare this time. He was enjoying himself, and seemed to be caught up in the general merriment and camaraderie of the moment. Maybe he really did find himself mellowing towards me.

When the grape juice was finished, and the last of the popcorn was all gone, I turned the lights down to an intimate level and we all settled down in front of the fire to wind down a little before bed. It was still early, but it had been a long and tiring day. We would all sleep well tonight, I figured. Yura and I cuddled up on the sofa, and I could see Anton with Vladik lying stretched out on the rug in front of the fire, much like they had been on the rocks at the cove earlier. There was silence, except for the occasional crackle from the fire.

Bathed in the fire's warm glow, I thought Yura was asleep. He was on the sofa next to me with his legs drawn up beside him. We were leaning over to one side and he was propped up against me. My arm was around his precious shoulders with his head nestling in my armpit. Then he spoke, in soft, hushed tones.

"Mark?"

"Hmm?"

"Why did that lady give us free ice cream today?"

The complimentary ice cream had obviously stuck in his mind.

"She said you were beautiful boys," I replied, "I guess she took a liking to you."

"Did she think you were my dad?" he asked.

"Who knows, maybe," I speculated.

Then there were a few moments of silence as we both thought on what we had just said, and I spoke again.

"Sometimes it feels like I'm your dad," I ventured.

Yura let out a little giggle at that, but I couldn't tell if it was prompted by humility or a sense of the ridiculous, whether he was flattered or just amused by that sentiment.

Anton sat up. Vladik appeared to be asleep, but Anton had clearly overheard my exchange with Yura and he looked set to join in on this discussion. I knew immediately that he had been alerted by the mention of a subject which, up till now, we had both knowingly and deliberately avoided. We both knew Yura's father was out there. We both knew Anton had been in contact with him. What we didn't know was how Yura might react to that revelation and we had not discussed how we might broach the subject with him.

"Do you ever wonder about your real dad?" Anton asked.

"Sometimes," said Yura, vaguely, not sounding particularly enthused by the idea.

"What would you do if you had a chance to meet him?"

Anton was treading a very fine line.

"Then I would have a few questions to ask him," said Yura, without a moment's hesitation.

It was a very mature and considered reply. Typical of Yura in some ways. It was clear that this was something he had already given some thought to.

"Like what?" I asked.

"Like why I was put in a children's home, what happened to my mom, and why they didn't want me."

The coherence of Yura's response left me breathless. His honesty almost brought tears to my eyes. Yura was ordinarily very happy-go-lucky, but you could tell that he also carried a lot of sadness with him, and deep down he was a very thoughtful and emotional little boy.

"Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if I was just an ordinary boy."

"An ordinary boy? What do you mean?"

"If I had a proper family," he explained.

"Would you have liked that?"

"Yeh, who wouldn't?" he said, "I wonder what it would be like to grow up with a mom and a dad, maybe a brother or a sister."

Then he paused and added, "Sometimes I imagine what my dad would be like."

"And?"

Yura thought for a moment, and sat up slightly, lifting his head from my armpit and turned to look up at me with a reassuring grin.

"I think he would be just like you," he said, smiling.

My heart absolutely melted.

The raw honesty of Yura's remark stunned me. I stared down at him for a moment, utterly blown away by the implications of his comment. I probably stared at him for a little too long, momentarily rendered totally speechless. I looked into his almond eyes - those magical, almost supernaturally blue eyes of his - and I could barely fathom what was going on in this boy's head. I could not conceive how this little boy was so infinitely capable of expressing himself in such a heartrendingly sincere way. But it was not just the candor of his remark that stunned me, nor the sheer innocence of how he laid his true feelings so completely bare, and was not afraid to express his innermost emotions - no, it was the way he said it, with an adoring smile that told me that this boy knew how to pay a compliment, and perhaps was even aware of how that compliment might elicit an emotion from within me. But moreover, it was the implication of how Yura's honest revelation related to me. Sometimes I think Yura was not aware of the extent to which the things he said affected me. The very idea that Yura imagined his father to be just like me was a remark that, innocent though it may have been, affected me so starkly, and touched me so deeply, that I could feel myself welling up inside. I cared for Yura so much, and loved him so completely, and his words had moved me so profoundly, that I had to get up, calmly and coolly, because I didn't want him to see me break down. I extricated myself from our little huddle on the sofa and said I was going out for a cigarette. I went out into the darkness alone. I hurried down towards the water's edge almost in a canter because I could barely hold back my emotions. When I got to the grassy bank at the edge of the lake, I stood there and breathlessly stared out across the water. I was all the more affected by the fact that I knew Yura's real father was out there somewhere. Of course, none of us knew what his real father was like. Even if his father knew about him, there was no guarantee he would want anything to do with Yura. What had moved me so deeply was the simple sentiment that in his imagination Yura had modeled his father on me. No one else had ever been able to move me to tears with a simple unqualified remark like that. Not even John. "I think he would be just like you." God! What other ten year old boy could ever express such a sentiment? I was so moved that I just stood there by the edge of the lake barely able to hold back the tears.


I slept late the next morning. When I awoke, my nostrils detected the unmistakable aroma of fresh coffee. I got up and peered out of the bedroom. Anton was up, walking around the living area of the cottage with only a towel wrapped around his waist. He was busily cooking away in the little galley kitchen.

"Morning," he said, cheerfully, as he saw me emerge from the bedroom.

"Morning," I replied, and sidled up to the little counter in my boxers.

I could see he had cooked eggs and made coffee. He was busily gliding around behind the counter with a lot of things going on at the same time, but as usual totally in control. His lean teen body was brown and silky. He had certainly caught the sun from our swimming the day before, lending him an all-over copper-like tint. His long hair was wet and slicked back from his shower. With that little towel flapping about his waist, he looked something like a teenage Tarzan.

"You did all this?" I said, surprised, "Why didn't you wake me?"

He shrugged it off as inconsequential.

"I thought I'd let you rest. Besides, I wanted to do it. I wanted to do something to thank you."

"Thank me?" I said, puzzled, "For what?"

He pretended not to hear my question and chose not to answer, he just poured some black coffee into a big mug and handed it to me.

"Here, sit down and drink this," he said.

So I sat down by the breakfast bar across from him and took a sip of the coffee. It was good.

I noticed that things were unusually quiet. There was something missing.

"Where are the boys?" I asked, suddenly curious.

"In the shower," he said.

"They okay?"

"They're good," he said, with an air of reassurance.

Then he came and sat down next to me with a mug of coffee and he turned to me, rather purposefully, and held his mug up as though in a toast.

"Thanks Mark," he said.

"What for?" I asked, a little perplexed.

"For taking me right out of myself. For cheering me up. Thanks for inviting me."

We clinked our mugs in a good natured toast and I smiled in bemusement.

"It's been good having you along," I said, confiding in him, "You've been a great help."

"It's been good for me too," he confessed, then with a more serious tone, "It gets quite lonely sometimes in that apartment on my own. It can really get you down. Anyhow, I've had a really good time. Thanks."

I was a little taken aback by Anton's sudden effusion of gratitude and his frank admission. I had no idea he felt lonely. He always seemed so confident and self-assured. He was an intelligent and independent young man, who had many talents. He seemed to have it all worked out. He was at college trying to make something of himself and was funding his education by touting his body around at the park every night, offering his wily charms to the unscrupulous johns who frequented that particular part of the city. Of course I knew all about that, having been a street kid myself.

I gave him a reassuring smile.

"No need to feel lonely," I said, "If you feel down, I'm here for you."

He looked at me through his round spectacles, his pretty hazel eyes sparkling in the morning sunshine that penetrated the windows of the cottage. He had a look on his face that told me he was wondering what had prompted me to say that. But he seemed genuinely grateful.

"Thanks Mark," he said again, smiling with gratitude and true affection.

Just then, our intimate conversation was rudely curtailed. The room erupted with the sound of little boys bursting in, giggling and shrieking and running across the room. It was Yura and Vladik, still naked and wet from their shower, and they were chasing each other, flicking their towels at one another, evidently finding the practice of snapping them at each other's butts a source of great hilarity.

Later, when we checked out of the resort, we stuffed what little we had into our backpacks and prepared to set off for the hike around the remaining perimeter of the lake, back to our encampment where we had left our tent and the car. We went back into the diner to pick up some bottles of water for the return journey, and we all said hi to the waitress who had served us the day before. She remembered us of course. We stopped at the long counter to chat and she offered us grilled cheese sandwiches before our journey. We all sat on the fixed stools at the counter and chatted amiably to the waitress, and she bantered with us in a really relaxed, down to earth manner that exuded total self-confidence. At the same time she was able to produce four perfect grilled cheese sandwiches as though she could have done it blindfolded. I liked her. She was kind and friendly and overly courteous to the boys, whom she obviously adored.

Whilst we sat there eating, Vladik said he wanted to go to the restroom. Yura and Anton were still busily munching away, their mouths and chins smeared with strings of melted Swiss cheese, so I offered to accompany him.

"I'll take you," I volunteered, getting up.

Vladik slipped off his stool and backed away from me.

"No," he said, holding up his little palms as if to fend me off, "I can manage."

"Someone should go with you," I protested.

He let out a small huff of derision.

"I don't need you to hold it for me," he said, with a note of sarcasm, and a tiny grimace of ridicule in his expression.

His remark was unkind, and I thought unnecessary, but I didn't want to insist and risk ruining any good rapport we might have built up. So I let him go.

"Okay," I said, backing off, "Don't be too long."

We carried on chatting to the waitress for a good long while. After some time had passed, I realized that Vladik was taking a long time in the restroom. Looking at the clock, it was nearly time we were heading off. Anton saw that I was looking at the clock and offered to go and get Vladik. He had not yet finished his sandwich, so I told him to finish eating and went to get Vladik myself.

The restroom was just off the small lobby at the entrance to the diner, which led out onto the parking lot. I pushed the swing door and went in. The restroom was dank and smelly. It was cold and grimy and permeated with the acrid stench of stale urine, the kind of place that no one wanted to spend too much time in. My first impression was not hopeful. There was no sign of Vladik. The urinals were vacant and there seemed to be no one around. I looked down the row of cubicles. None were occupied. My heart was racing. There were a couple of open shower stalls at the end, probably for the few hikers and backpackers that stopped at the diner to rest and freshen up. I could see shadows being cast on the grimy tiled floor, and there were hushed voices. I approached slowly. As I neared I heard a harsh, coercive tone.

"...yeah, you like that don't you... dirty little cocksucker..."

As I reached the last shower stall, two fully clothed figures turned in surprise. I saw one of them hastily pull up the front of his unfastened jeans. They had been huddled together and I had obviously interrupted them. They both jolted with surprise, panic flaring in their eyes and, before I could react, they pushed past me, knocking me down. I felt a hefty blow to my chest which knocked all the air out of my lungs, and I slipped on the wet floor. I fell backwards, landing heavily on my elbow and knocking the back of my head hard on the ceramic tiles. I was disorientated for a moment, and everything was a blur. It took me a couple of seconds to focus. As I looked up across the floor of the room, I just glimpsed the two figures disappearing hastily through the swing door. I recognized them. It was the two young guys that I had seen sitting in the diner yesterday, the ones who had evidently recognized Vladik and had been eyeing him up all the time they were in there.

I sat up, rubbing the back of my head, and fighting to get my breath back. I considered going after them, but right now my priority was Vladik. It was then that I spotted Vladik. He was slumped back against the shower wall, his diminutive little frame crouched down on his knees, and his eyes wide with fear. His jeans and underwear had been pulled down and were tangled around his ankles so that his bare legs were exposed. My heart jumped at the sight of him, and for a moment it felt like history was repeating itself. Just for a split second, I saw myself huddled there. It took me back to the day when I was a helpless little twelve year old street kid lying in that restroom - the day that John found me on the floor and rescued me from my plight - the day that my life changed forever.

I got up, my elbow hurting savagely from my fall, and went over to Vladik. I stepped into the shower stall, which was still wet, and knelt down to see to him. I spoke in soft, low tones, solicitously and reassuringly.

"What have they done to you little buddy?"

I stroked his cropped hair and the side of his face, comforting him. He was very stiff, very silent, and clearly shaken.

"C'mon little buddy," I said, "It's okay, they've gone."

I helped Vladik to get up. I pulled him up by his armpits and held him against me. He was limp, almost as though his legs had turned to rubber, and his knees wouldn't lock. He was shaking, emanating a distinct and pronounced tremble throughout his little frame. His jeans were soaked from the wet shower floor, and he had little wet stains all over him. I propped him up against my shoulder and pulled up his jeans and underwear. Then I stood him up straight, leaning him back against the shower wall to fasten the front of his jeans. I smoothed him down and took some toilet paper to wipe off his face. At the same time I was talking quietly to him, reassuring him, calming him and slowly bringing him back to equilibrium. Vladik said nothing. His expression was oddly serene. He seemed to have withdrawn into a state of blank quiescence. He listened, but didn't react to anything. His silence worried me.

My rising anger almost incited an impulse to go after those two guys. They may have thought they had got away, but I was already resolved that they would be caught and punished for this. A few choice words with Nikolayev would see to that. I would make sure of that. But right now, I had to focus on Vladik. In all the time I ministered to Vladik my seething anger was tinged with guilt. I remember thinking: After all this boy has been through, after all he has suffered, why should he come to harm when he was in my care? This poor little boy had already experienced the most horrendous treatment at the hands of people who had no thought for his welfare, to whom he was probably expendable. He had already experienced the most extreme, protracted and systematic mistreatment in his young life, and had been rescued from it in the most dramatic circumstances. After surviving all that, what cruel twist of fate should dictate that he was now destined to suffer this additional misfortune? I felt like I had failed him. How could I have allowed him to be traumatized in such a way when I was supposed to be taking care of him? As I took his little hand and guided him gently out of the restroom, Vladik had a slightly dazed expression that was neither relief nor trauma. But he was clearly shaken. So was I.

The walk back to our camp was solemn and mostly silent. We tramped through the forest having lost the enthusiasm with which we had started the day. In fact, we had lost faith in the entire expedition. The return journey lacked the sense of adventure of our outward journey, and certainly there was none of the idyll and mirth that we had enjoyed at the cove the day before. Even the good natured start to the day had deteriorated into a pessimistic gloom. The event at the diner had cast a spell of disillusionment over all of us.

When we reached our encampment, Vladik just crawled quietly into the tent, snuggled into his sleeping bag and laid down, calm and expressionless. He turned his face to the back of the tent, one shoulder sticking out of the sleeping bag, and he laid there quietly on his own. I felt so sorry for him. Yura went in after him and crouched down, cupping his hands to Vladik's ear and whispered something. I think he was trying to comfort him or cheer him up, perhaps draw him into some kind of activity. Whatever it was, Vladik wasn't interested. "No. Leave me alone..." was all I heard, quite loudly, at which point Yura gave up and left Vladik in the tent. His little buddy didn't want to play. I felt sorry for Yura. Vladik was wallowing in self pity and just wanted to withdraw. He was still in shock and would need time to recover.

Anton made chili for dinner. He cooked up a rich and spicy mix which he heated up for a long time over the campfire. It smelled heavenly and was delicious. He took a bowl of chili in to Vladik, who was still holed up in the tent, and left it by Vladik's sleeping bag with a large spoon. Vladik didn't eat it. Something told me that this time Vladik genuinely wasn't hungry. The bowl and spoon were sitting there for a long time before Anton took it away untouched.

That night, we went to bed early. It wasn't yet dark when we decided to turn in. I was still feeling responsible for what happened to Vladik, and I almost regretted bringing these boys on the trip. It was our last night at Crystal Lake and in some ways I was looking forward to getting home and putting the memory of it behind us.

It seemed we had barely got to sleep, or at any rate we had not been asleep long, when I was suddenly awakened by Anton. He jiggled my shoulder and was there by my sleeping bag holding the battery powered lantern up in one hand, eerily illuminating the inside of the tent.

"It's Vladik," he said, with some urgency, "He's gone."

I sat up.

"What do you mean he's gone?"

"Gone... gone..." Anton repeated, holding up the lantern to the empty sleeping bag.

"Oh god!" I exclaimed.

"He can't have gone far," said Anton, with a note of optimism.

I scrambled out of my sleeping bag and hurriedly donned my jeans and sweatshirt.

"We'd better go and find him," I said.

Yura had also woken up by this time. I said I would take the car, and Anton volunteered to take the lantern and scout around down by the lake. I told Yura to stay in the tent. He was scared, but lucid. I made sure he understood the urgency of the situation and he promised to stay put.

I snatched my heavy fleece jacket on my way out of the tent, then I hurried up to where the car was parked just off the dirt road and started it up. We had gone to sleep early, and it wasn't yet nightfall. There was still a tiny bit of fading daylight left, which was probably in our favor. In the dead of night Vladik would have no hope of finding his way anywhere. And it was turning cold too. I had visions of us finding him in the morning suffering from exposure. As if he hadn't suffered enough already. What a day. What had got into the little fool?

With the car's headlights on full beam, and the fog-lamps all blazing, the car was lit up like a cathedral, and I slowly took it down the dirt road, keeping the engine turning over at low revs. The engine strained and growled like it was a tractor as it negotiated the bumps. The powerful glare of the lights cut through the darkness like a lighthouse beam, illuminating a narrow strip of the forest on either side. I watched for any sign of movement on the deserted road and the trees which lined the road. I only hoped that Vladik had the good sense to follow the road. In the forest he would easily lose his bearings.

What followed was a good twenty minutes of frantic, panic-infused searching. Eventually, I spotted him. Anton was right, Vladik hadn't gone very far. To my relief, I saw his lonely little figure, trudging along the side of the road. He had neither the shoes nor the clothes for a night in the forest. I don't know where on earth he thought he was going or how far he thought he might get. Strangely, he didn't react when he detected the lights of the car shining on him from behind. He just kept right on walking. I stopped the car several yards behind him and jumped out.

"Hey little buddy!" I called out.

Vladik kept on walking.

I ran up to him and caught him up. I stood in front of him, holding a hand up to his chest to bar him from walking any further. He was crying and sniffling. The tears were clearly visible on his face.

"Hey little buddy, what's going on with you?"

He stood there and looked up at me, sobbing.

"I'm running away," he blubbered.

I almost felt like laughing. We were standing in the glare of the car's headlights, pitch darkness all around us, and it struck me how surreal the situation was.

"Where were you going to go?" was all I could think to ask.

Vladik shrugged.

"Anywhere," he said, without an inkling of how hopeless that sounded.

"Please come back," I said, "Don't do this."

He sobbed a little more and wiped his face with the back of his hand, smearing his cheek with wetness.

"Like you give a shit," he said, reproachfully.

"Whatever you think of me, I do love you," I said.

"Fuck you!" was his reply.

"I care about you very much, little buddy."

"I hate you!" he retorted.

"You don't mean that," I said quietly.

He stood there sobbing, his little shoulders shuddering, and his head hung down.

"Come back to the tent," I implored him.

"Fuck you!" he said again, as if to reemphasize his rejection of me.

"But you can't go wandering around in the forest on your own," I appealed, "We're miles from anywhere."

He looked up and scowled.

"I never wanted to come on this stupid trip anyway!" he screamed, "It's all your fault!"

That hurt. But it didn't surprise me that he felt that way, and I fully understood his childish sentiments. I had put him in danger and had not been there when he most needed me.

He was crying even more now, gradually receding into an irrepressible fit of self-pity, and he was shivering. I tried to put an arm around his shoulders and guide him back towards the car.

"C'mon, come back, it's cold out here."

He threw my hands off.

"Don't touch me!"

"C'mon little buddy," I tried to reason, "Let's get back to the tent. We can sort this out in the morning."

He looked up with real hostility burning in his tear-filled eyes.

"Don't you get it? I hate you!"

I stood back and kept my distance. He carried on crying, sobbing uncontrollably, his intransigence ratcheting up the air of confrontation. But he was still shivering, his shoulders trembling with cold as well as rage.

"I'm only trying to do what's best for you," I said, "Do you really think I could leave you out here all night on your own?"

"Don't care," he sniffed.

"I love you little buddy. Why can't you see that?"

He didn't respond to that. He stood there looking down, his arms still by his sides, the tears still flowing. His teeth were chattering from the cold.

I knew that if the situation required it I could force Vladik to come with me. I was bigger and infinitely stronger. If I wanted to, I could create a scene and unceremoniously bundle him into the car by force. But somehow I didn't think that was going to be necessary. He was just a helpless little boy - a vulnerable little soul who was at this moment in distress, and I was filled with nothing but love and empathy for him.

In a gesture of goodwill, and to demonstrate my love for him, I took off my thick fleece jacket and draped it around his shoulders. He let me. It was already warm from my body heat. All he had on was his thin sweatshirt. He must have been feeling the cold because he immediately pulled the jacket around him, tucking his arms across his chest under the warm fabric.

I walked back towards the car. The Constellation was stopped in the middle of the road with an air of expectation, with the door open and the engine running, as though it was waiting for us to decide what to do. The courtesy lights were all on, lighting up the interior of the car with a welcoming yellow glow, and giving it the appearance of a lifeboat - our safety net in the sea of impending darkness that was closing in around us, our sanctuary from the forbidding danger of the surrounding forest.

I turned to look at Vladik again and watched him through the gap between the open door and the windscreen pillar. I could see him standing with his back to me thinking things over. He stood there shivering, my oversized fleece jacket wrapped around him, its empty sleeves hanging there redundantly. But he had stopped crying. For a moment I thought he was determined to continue with his ill-conceived flight. But he didn't. He hesitated for a few moments, huddling deeper into the big jacket, and he slowly turned towards me, illuminated by the blinding glare of the car's headlights. He appeared very vulnerable at that moment, a very solitary, forlorn figure, just a tiny little boy standing out there in the darkness on his own. Then he looked up slowly with a pained expression.

"Mark?"

I waited, looking directly at him.

"Yes?"

"I'm cold."

His demeanor collapsed and his defiance instantly dissolved. It was almost as though he had been suddenly consumed by some unpleasant sensation, and his face slowly contorted into a tortured grimace. Then he managed to elicit a single, plaintive, quiet little plea, that was almost drowned by a big surge of emotion.

"Hold me?"

It was almost a squeak - a momentary cry for help which deteriorated into full blown tears. He broke down in front of me, his little body suddenly wracked with grief, overcome by a renewed fit of crying, even greater than before. And as he stood there in the darkness, with his face in his hands, shuddering with the intensity of his weeping, I leapt across and enveloped him in my arms in the most welcome and comforting embrace I could muster. He melted in my arms, and I knew that the deep, almost guttural sobs he was crying into my chest were long overdue - the inevitable manifestation of all the hurt he had been holding inside him. Poor little boy. He just couldn't keep it in any more.

That night, Vladik cried himself to sleep in my arms. He cried all the way back to the tent. He cried so much that his little body shuddered violently with the depth of his sorrow. He was trying to talk as he cried, but the words just came out as distorted vocalizations that were strangled by his tears. He went on blubbing like that, even though he made no sense, but I just listened and comforted him, holding his cute blond head against my chest. Vladik cried for a long time. God, I had never seen a little boy cry so many tears, for so long and so profoundly. I held him until he had no more tears left. I held him so tightly and for so long that my arms ached. His sadness gradually subsided into gentle shudders and then petered out altogether. For a long time he just stayed in my arms, staring out silently, not thinking anything in particular, just nestled in my embrace. Then I looked down after a long, long time and finally he was asleep. I laid him down next to me on the sleeping bag, threw the comforter over him, and kissed his tear-stained cheek.


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